Feb 7 2013 3:00pm

Urban Fantasy 101: Rice, Hamilton, Rowling and More!

Think urban fantasy is all leather-clad heroines and male sidekicks with big guns? Think again. Urban fantasy has become one of the most varied of the speculative genres. In fact, it’s no longer necessarily urban, and the fantasy elements can be light and whimsical or deep and dark. Don’t even think about delving more deeply into the world of UF until you’ve completed this core reading list.

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

Published in 1976 as the first in a series of novels that became known as The Vampire Chronicles, this book is more horror than urban fantasy as we think of it today. But the series laid the groundwork for modern urban fantasy, setting its immortal beings in the modern world undetected among humans—that intersection of fantasy and reality which lies at the core of urban fantasy. It also took the emotions of vampires outside the monster realm and into a territory with which human readers could sympathize.

Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton

Arguably the first modern urban fantasy, 1993’s Guilty Pleasures introduced the kickass heroine, vampire slayer (and later federal marshal) Anita Blake in a futuristic St. Louis where the vampires live openly among humans. Anita’s world also introduced a multiverse that eventually extended far beyond vampires into a dizzying variety of were-critters, and helped establish the much-used urban fantasy trope of the human law-enforcement team established to investigate “unusual” crimes.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

What, you don’t think the Harry Potter series is urban fantasy? Fantastical and magical creatures? Check. Living in the modern world among humans? Check. Harry Potter, beginning with 1997’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone in the UK) re-energized the world of reading for pleasure, gave a good shot in the arm to paranormal fiction, accustomed generations of readers to enjoying fantasy and urban fantasy, and started an empire of Young Adult fiction that is just now beginning to slow. Sorcerer’s Stone isn’t the best in this wonderful series, not by a long shot, but it was the first.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

In 2000, urban fantasy took another big step in its evolution with Jim Butcher’s first Dresden Files novel, Storm Front. In Dresden, we have the true modern UF protagonist. He has a lot of power at his disposal but doesn’t always know how to use it. Harry is kickass, but he isn’t afraid to run if the odds are against him. He works as an investigator for hire in Chicago but moonlights with the cops. He lives in a true multiverse with vampires, weres, fae, and other wizards like himself. He makes mistakes. He has a dry wit and a sidekick who’s a sex-obsessed invisible spirit living inside a human skull. What’s not to love?

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine HarrisDead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

With the current popularity of the True Blood TV series (which bears only the slightest resemblance to the novels), it’s easy to forget that Sookie Stackhouse first spilled out of her sundress twelve years ago, in 2001’s Dead Until Dark. In what was officially called the Southern Vampire series, Harris took Sookie’s story outside the urban area to an imaginary rural crossroads town called Bon Temps, Louisiana, near Shreveport. She also gave the whole paranormal world a sexied-up, homespun humor, even when the telepathic “Sookay” is running for her life. Which happens frequently.

Something from the Nightside by Simon R. Green

Take Dresden, shoot him up with crack, cast him into an alternative version of London where it’s always nighttime, and surround him with the craziest cast of oddities imaginable, and you get Simon R. Green’s Nightside series, which began in 2003 with Something from the Nightside. This now-complete twelve-volume series features magical investigator John Taylor, who tracks down cases in the shadowy Nightside version of London. This series draws heavily on mythology and history to illustrate just how far and how far-out urban fantasy can stretch itself. Merlin is buried beneath a bar called Strangefellows, the God of the Hunt is a homeless dude with antlers, Angels are bad, bad news, and John Taylor himself has some major family secrets stretching back to Eden.

Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison

The not-quite-kickass protagonist took another twist with 2004’s Dead Witch Walking, first in Kim Harrison’s Hollows series featuring Rachel Morgan. Rachel’s a witch living in a futuristic Cincinnati after the Turn—when a genetically engineered virus distributed through tomatoes killed a great many humans but left the Others, aka the Inderlanders, unscathed. Suddenly, the humans are outnumbered and the difference species are left vying for power. In addition to the modern not-quite-kickass heroine, the Hollows series expanded the urban fantasy multiverse to include demons and elves, pixies and gargoyles, and a complex balance of power that, eleven books in, has yet to be unraveled. Relationships also became a big part of the urban fantasy story in this series—Rachel is not a loner but has a full cast of friends, partners, and sometimes-allies with which to interact.

Moon Called by Patricia BriggsMoon Called by Patricia Briggs

Werewolf and Native American skinwalker culture takes a realistic turn in 2006’s Moon Called, first in Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series. Using knowledge of real wolf-pack dynamics and the native culture of the Pacific Northwest, Briggs’ series takes urban fantasy out of the urban area, and introduces a novelty to urban fantasy: a stable and slow-building relationship. Though not without their problems, skinwalker Mercy and alpha werewolf Adam are still a novelty in the genre. Briggs also introduces the fae and vampires in unusual, non-urban settings.

Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost

The already fuzzy lines between urban fantasy and paranormal romance blurred with Jeaniene Frost’s 2007 Halfway to the Grave, first in her Night Huntress series. Cat and Bones became another urban fantasy super-couple, but unlike previous urban fantasies, their relationship holds almost equal weight with the external drama. Not quite, or it would be paranormal romance. But close. It might be a groundbreaker for a future in which less distinction is made between UF and PNR.

Reading this Urban Fantasy 101 list will give you a solid grounding in this versatile genre. What else is a must-read?


Urban fantasy author Suzanne Johnson writes the Sentinels of New Orleans series, which kicked off in 2012 with Royal Street and River Road.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Amanda Bonilla
1. Amanda Bonilla
Great post! I've always considered Rice as the trail-blazer of UF.
2. Tammye
The Kate Daniels series from Ilona Andrews!!
Suzanne Johnson
3. suzannej3523
@Amanda...Thanks! Yes, it's hard to realize it's been almost 40 years since Interview with the Vampire came out, and how well it still reads.

@Tammye...Definitely a great series!
Lege Artis
4. LegeArtis
1976? Wow, that was long, long ago... but, you're right, it is more of a horror...
Guilty Plesures was my first UF.
I'm huge Patty Briggs fan- she writes best werwolves I ever read.
Must read UF, IMO:
1.Kate Daniels by Ilona Andrews
2. Fever series by KMM
3. Downside Ghosts by Stacia Kane
rachel sternberg
5. rae70
Carrie Vaughn and her "Kitty" series.. Kitty Norville is a turned werewolf who breaks from her sadistic pack and goes out on her own, as a radio DJ, and her late night advice show is called The Midnight Hour.
Suzanne Johnson
6. suzannej3523
@LegeArtis...Guilty Pleasures was my first UF as well, although I don't think the term had been invented yet. (Hmmm....when was "urban fantasy" as a genre invented?) Downside Ghosts is a really interesting series--talk about an antihero/antiheroine! And I agree--the Mercy Thompson and Alpha/Omega series are among my favorites.

@rae70...Another good series. And I think the whole idea of the werewolf named Kitty and the late-night radio show is brilliant!
7. Roger Simmons 1
I would add Jennifer Estep , The Elemental Assassin series. My first UF read was Dead Witch Walking.
Suzanne Johnson
8. suzannej3523
@Roger...I haven't read the JE series, although I've heard great things about it. And we all know Rachel :-) -- the Hollows is still one of my favorites.
rachel sternberg
10. rae70
Kelley Armstrong .. Bitten, story of Elena Michaels, one of the very few female werewolves...
Carmen Pinzon
11. bungluna
@rae70 - you beat me to "Bitten". LKH was also my first UB book. I couldn't get enough of a kick-ass heroine who could actually defend herself! I've read every single title in this list except for the Harry Potter and the Rice. For some reason, I cannot read either author, although I know they should be in my favorite list.
12. Kareni
Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, published in 1987, is another early urban fantasy novel set in Minneapolis.

Then there is Tanya Huff's Blood series which began in 1991 with Blood Price. It's set in Toronto.
Suzanne Johnson
13. suzannej3523
@rae70...I haven't read Bitten (for shame, I know)...I guess my female werewolves have been limited to Kitty and the Patricia Briggs books...oh, and Anita.

@bungluna...I really have disliked most of the "blockbuster" YA series, but the Harry Potter series is so well done I think it transcends the hype, especially when you get past the third book, when things take a more adult tone and you no longer feel as if you're reading a kids' book.

@Kareni...Yes, I pondered including War for the Oaks but it always felt more like contemporary fantasy to me (that's a fine line, I know), skittering on traditional fantasy. The Blood books from Tanya Huff was a great series, with one of the more memorable flawed heroines.
14. wsl0612
Eileen Wilks' Lupi series, she doesn't get enough press IMO :-)

Meljean Brooks' Guardian series, I consider it UF although your mileage may vary.

Shannon Butcher's Sentinel Wars too!
15. KMont
Disagree on Harry Potter. Yes, they are hiding amongst the modern world sometimes, but they retreat from it as much as possible to live separately from it (in castles, with classes on magic, with a forest full of centaurs and giants as well as giant spiders). It's not an integral part of the worldbuilding other than that, at the periphery, the good guys don't wish for any harm to come to non-magical humans. Even when later in the books you see them briefly in London they're not doing anything in a modern sense or using that modern world except to hide for a little while. They're just getting through it as quickly as possible. Just because it's set in a modern time doesn't mean its urban fantasy. The world of Harry Potter and modern human living doesn't intersect so much as they repel one another.

War for the Oaks is a fantastic early example of urban fantasy, would recommend it highly as well.
16. Melanie S
I've read all of these except, Something from the Nightside by Simon R. Green, which I've never heard of. For the one's I've read, there are some better than others. I tend to read more with heroines as the main character, but that is not intentional.

I do agree that there are some others you can add to this list.
Kate Daniels - Ilona Andrews
Downside Ghosts - Stacia Kane
Women of the Otherworld - Kelley Armstrong

Honorable mentions or other recommendations
Charely Davidson - Darynda Jones
Kara Gillian - Diana Rowland
White Trash Zombie - Diana Rowland
Elemental Assassign - Jennifer Estep
World of the Lupi - Eileen Wilks
Unbound - Rachel Vincent
Shifters - Rachel Vincent
Nikki Glass - Jenna Black
Morgan Kingsley - Jenna Black
Dante Valentine - Lilith Saintcrow
Suzanne Johnson
17. suzannej3523
I like the "honorable mention" category--might not be groundbreakers but very good examples of the genre.

Harry Potter...I can see it going either way, but I don't see it being much different than, say, the Nightside series, which takes almost exclusively in an alternate London.
18. Tanya D
Oh there are so many in this category that could be trailblazers. Kim Harrison was my first so I always vote for that. I run into the problem of separating UF from PNR. Such a fine line sometimes.
19. Lynnd
IMO, Charles de Lint's Newford books are also also part of the foundations of urban fantasy as are Mercedes Lackey's Diana Tregarde series.
Anne Muller
20. amuller38
I have read all the books in all the series mentioned on this list EXCEPT Anne Rice. I have never been able to get farther than a few pages. I don't get the appeal. My sister feels the same.
Suzanne Johnson
21. suzannej3523
@amuller38....At the time the Anne Rice vampire books came out, they were unlike anything else out there, so I think they deserve their spot as trailblazers for urban fantasy (supernatural creatures living in modern urban area). They're really more horror than anything else, though, so I think that loses appeal for a lot of contemporary readers.

@Lynnd...I considered Charles DeLint for the list but really consider them the standard for contemporary fantasy rather than urban fantasy...although it's a slim line one draws between the two.
22. Liz S
I have read most of the series listed above and agree. I would like to include Benedict Jacka's Alex Verus series. If you like Harry Dresden, you'll love Alex. I would also recommend the Iron Druid series by Kevin Hearne. And what about a Discovery of Witches?
23. DeirdreT
@lynnd You beat me to those two. I'd also add Katherine Kurtz's Adept series, which was well ahead of it's time.

The Mercedes Lackey Diana Tregarde series had many of the tropes, vampire boyfriend, powerful witch, the end of Jinx High made me shudder, my copy is in bits. Her Elves in LA series are technical spin-offs and some other authors wrote in that world.

Some of Charles de Lint is very fantasy-esque but the Tamson House series stuck in my mind, I want to live in that house, and are quite urban fantasy.

Rosemary Edghill's Bell, Book and Murder are an interesting early urban fantasy series too.

Brisingamen by Diana L Paxson and The Paradise Tree are interesting in that magic has consequences.

Marion Zimmer Bradley also had a series in the 80s/90s that was urban fantasy, starting with Dark Satanic, which is influenced by both urban fantasy and Lovecraft.

Michael Scott's The Hallows is a standalone he wrote years before the Alchemyst series (also worth a mention) that features many names from the Dublin SF scene and is an urban fantasy.

In the 90s I got into Urban Fantasy and for a while I was desperately hunting Urban Fantasy but now it's exploded. I think one of the root tropes for this was the Role-playing game Shadowrun which was popular in the 80s and 90s, where magic came back into the world and people transformed into magical creatures and the world changed.
24. DianeN
Confession time. I haven't read much UF, (though I do love Diana Rowland's Kara Gillian series and Suzanne's Sentinels), so I'm not always sure whether a book or series is urban fiction or paranormal romance. I always thought that J.R. Ward's BDB books (which I stopped reading about 4 books in, btw) were urban fantasy, but no one has mentioned them. If they're not UF, why not? Can someone enlighten me?
Suzanne Johnson
25. suzannej3523
Lots of great ideas of things I need to read here!

@DianeN...I'm a huge fan of the Black Dagger Brotherhood, but I put that series in the paranormal romance category rather than urban fantasy because most of the story line in each book deals with the relationship rather than the external plot (although the war with the Lessers often drives the romance in certain directions). The series I waffle on most as to whether it's PNR or UF is Jeaniene Frost's Night Huntress series, which is why it made the list rather than BDB. It's almost the perfect mix of romance and external plot.
26. NicReads315
My Favs:
Alpha/Omega series by Patricia Briggs
Mercedes Thompson by Patricia Briggs

Riley Jenson Guardian series by Keri Arthur -- slutty werewolf who truly grows throughout the series. Can't wait for her publisher to release her other books in the US.

Kim Harrison's Hollow's series is fabulous -- the growth of character in this series is so fun to read. I love everything she writes.

Ilona Andrews Kate Daniel's series.

I can't get enough of these authors.
27. Shadowspun
Let's not forget the Borderlands books edited by Will Shetterly and Emma Bull - I class that and War between the Oaks as just about the first urban fantasy.
I love Mercedes, but Diane your hero can be taken out by a toothpick. That's unfortunate. At least in WOD, if you are taken out by a toothpick, there is some pretty powerful magic behind it.

Laurell K Hamilton (both series), the Early Sookie books, JR Ward, Sherilyn Kenyon Darkhunter etc (but not Chronicles of Nick...I don't mind alternate universe but actual historical inaccuracies to the level of what occurs in this series make it hard to read), Mercedes Lackey Elves series, Patricia Briggs both series same universe), Lynsay Sands, Annette Blair. I could go on for hours.
Suzanne Johnson
29. suzannej3523
Yes, there are SO MANY great series. It was hard to come up with ten or fewer books that I felt were groundbreakers for whatever reason. I think there's an argument for War of the Oaks and (in my mind at least) even moreso for the Blood Books by Tanya Huff. The reason I left some of these off--Sherilyn Kenyon, Lynsay Sands, JR Ward (and I adore BDB) are that I consider them PNR rather than UF. It's a fine line.
30. Eric'sDonor
Don't forget Vicki Pettersson's Signs of the Zodiac series! Joanna Archer is one kick-ass heroine. Imagine being dropped into a fight between good and evil with a superhero twist (comic book readers who believe in them strengthen their power) and being called in a way their prophesized savior. This is a six book series and VERY cool. Not to mention the author herself is kind and wonderful with her fans!
Elizabeth Halliday
31. Ibbitts
I read "Interviw with the Vampire" when it was newly released. It was only the second vampire book I'd ever read (the first being Bram Stoker's effort - definately not UF!) and I would acknowledge it to be my introduction to Urban Fantasy. I devoured the whole Vampire Chronicles series and the spin-off Mayfair Witches series wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, Rice's writing (or my tastes) changed after the death of her husband, and I wasn't able to return to her work with the love I'd had before. I found the two Wolf Gift books and "Prince Lestat" to be great disappointments.
My next big jump into the genre was the Eve Dallas/In Death series by J. D. Robb, whom I didn't know (when I began the series in 1995) was Nora Roberts. Had I known, I probably would have missed out on my longest-standing active series, because I had read Nora Roberts before and didn't - still don't - care for her writing style.
How do Authors do that? I'm in awe!
I have read, and continue to read, Laurell K. Hamilton, Jeaniene Frost, Jim Butcher, and, like previously mentioned, would add Kelley Armstrong to the list.
The first 5 books in the Fever Series by Karen Marie Moning were extroadinary (I haven't continued after book 5 - it got too complicated or something ...) I also enjoyed the first nine books in the Charley Davidson series - I didn't enjoy book 10, and I have not continued the series since then.
I don't read YA - The Hunger Games put me off the whole genre and I've yet to recover.
Thank you to the other opinions - I now have a list of new Authors to try!
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